The 7 Rules of Conference Call Etiquette

Recently, I’ve been on a number of conference calls with groups of people scattered across the United States.  My preference is to do video calls.  Especially now that there are so many good technologies like Google+ hangouts, GoToMeeting, WebEx, and others.


Alas, the conference call is still sometimes a necessity.  On a recent call, there were 2 different people trying to lead the call (one of them was me).  There were over a dozen people on the call from 4 different time zones.  I couldn’t tell who was speaking.  People were talking over each other.  It was a free-for-all.

I had another conference call that I led two days ago that went like clock-work.  26 minutes and we were done.  What was the difference?  I followed these rules.

The 7 Rules of Conference Call Etiquette

  1. There must be a clear leader/moderator of the call – This is the person that keeps the call on track.  Time is valuable.  When you multiply the time spent on a call times the number of people on the call, multiples of hours are spent on a conference call.  There has to be a driver of the bus.
  2. There must be an agenda – Not only must there be an agenda, but it needs to be in front of everyone.  The agenda keeps the meeting on track, and allows all on the call to know the purpose of the call.  It gives direction.
  3. Announce yourself – This was the single biggest difference between the “free-for-all” call and the quick and efficient one.  Announcing yourself when you speak has two huge benefits.  First, it is polite to let those on the call know who is speaking since they can’t see you.  Don’t assume people know the sound of your voice.  Second, it almost entirely eliminates interruptions. I was surprised by this, but think about it.  You aren’t as likely to cut someone off or talk over someone if you are announcing who you are first.  “This is Jack from Ohio and I’m going to interrupt you now.”
  4. Keep the group as small as possible – This is common sense.  So what do you do if you have a large group?  Divide them up.  We are planning a national conference with over a dozen people on the call.  One of our team had the brilliant idea to break into smaller teams depending on which day of the conference you had responsibility.  We now have 2 calls instead of 1, but the groups are smaller and it is so much easier to make decisions and get off the call quickly.
  5. Practice impeccable phone etiquette – There is nothing worse on a call than background noise.  Typing is heard.  A side conversation is happening.  The background noise kills the mojo of the call and is simply rude.  It is so easy to be distracted on a call like this and start checking email, etc.  I get it.  Just make sure your line is muted.
  6. Make sure you have a good connection – Cell phones are tricky.  Regardless of my love for Verizon, sometimes I will still have a bad connection. If at all possible, dial in from a landline.  I am not a fan of VOIP in this context.
  7. Set these ground rules and the beginning of the call – This is the leader’s job.  At the beginning of the call, the leader should welcome everyone and then lay out the ground rules.  Don’t assume that those on the call understand the guidelines for a quick and efficient call.  The leader’s role is huge in setting the tone, keeping the call on track, and making sure that everyone is engaged.  If someone is not speaking up, call them out and invite them to share their thoughts.

A parting thought – if more than one person is in charge of something, then no one is.  I’m sure that is someone else’s quote, but I don’t know who.  It is so true.  A conference call is held because a group is trying to accomplish a task.  Ensure that each part of that task is owned by someone.  Then hold them accountable for the results.

I want to hear the horror stories of terrible conference calls that you have been on.  What rules have I missed?  Share with us!

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bill Barron. Bo’s old man

    Sorry Bo your breaking up on me:). Seriously, great advice.

  • Laura Alexander

    Bo, first of all, I have loved reading your blogs 🙂

    I am always jumping on a conference call for work, typically once a week. There have been times where a single person has but us on hold and the background music begins to play for everyone to hear. The worst part is that we cannot make an announcement during the call to stop doing this or that because the person put us on hold and cannot hear what we are saying! It is very distracting!

    Keep up the great posts!

    • That is the worst. I should have mentioned this. It is so important for the leader of the call to make sure that the participants know how to mute their line without pressing the hold button. This is like tossing a grenade into the meeting. Thanks for bringing this up!

  • Bo – Another excellent post. On this topic, here’s one of my favorite takes on it by David Grady.

  • Chris Eaker

    #8. Shut your door if you’re on speaker phone. Your coworkers don’t want to hear the call too.

  • Ken Lawson

    It’s slower, but if you use a service that allows for “Hand Raising”, then all the people can be muted by the leader while a presentation is made. I am surprised that one of these services has not come up with a “Yield” system that lets the person speaking know that others want to speak and they can yield the microphone to someone else. Also a service that possibly limited people’s speaking time or showed them how long they have had the mic. This won’t be applicable in all situations, but being able to turn these features on would help.


  • Barbi Reuter

    Good stuff, Bo – thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Great Reading!

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  • Carolyn Neuman

    I know that my husband’s daughters use conference call when they call us – we are 83 and 88. But they do not tell us that others are listening to the conversation. Only one sister supposedly has called us to see how we are. Recently my husband handed me the phone to hang up and as I put the phone to my ear to make sure we weren’t hanging up on daughter. Then I heard a conversation between 3 of the sisters. Hmm. Is that illegal, or just rude?

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  • One cool practice my previous colleagues used was they never interjected with social-conversational sounds like “mmhmm”, “yeah!”, or “great!” They also waited an extra second or two after someone had [probably] finished talking to make sure they were not interrupting someone’s train of thought. This is something I’ve been thinking about in my new company, and I found your post while looking for other good standards to implement for my business’s conference calls.

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